Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Consider Dictating Your Writing

Back in the era of Mad Men, secretaries went into the offices of people like Don Draper and took shorthand while he dictated. Now, however, you don't need a secretary to be able to dictate.

I was reflecting on voice activation software recently, because I have a client — a university professor — who is working with a very bright PhD student who has a hard time expressing himself in writing. "I bet he has a learning disability," I said. My advice was to get him to use voice activation software.

I first tried voice activation about eight years ago on the urging of my doctor who thought it might help my back problems. I have difficulty with my thoracic spine and the theory was that reducing my typing would help reduce my pain. I went out and bought Dragon Dictate and gave it a try. Sadly, I found the number of errors the software made so infuriating that I couldn't continue with it.

A few years later, I decided to try again. This time, however, I hired a consultant to help "train" me — along with the software. Smartest move I've ever made. In only an hour, the consultant had me operating Dragon like a pro.

What are the benefits of voice activation software?

I see three main ones:

1. It helps you write a whole lot faster. I'm a pretty quick writer now, but I'm much, much faster with voice activation. I think this is because:

  • I can speak a lot faster than I can write by hand or type. When I use a pencil and paper, I can produce no more than 40 words per minute. And although my typing speed is very respectable — about 85 to 90 words per minute – it's a lot slower than my talking, which, like most people's is about 150 words per minute.
  • Even though I'm diligent about trying not to edit while I write, my inner editor still wrestles for control. I use all sorts of tricks to keep my inner editor at bay, but speaking the words, rather than writing them, makes the biggest difference of all.

2. Voice activation eases the strain on my back and wrists. Now I can write more quickly with much less physical pain. If you find that it takes a full weekend for your back or wrists to recover from the typing you do, voice activation would be a good tool for you to try.

3. Voice activation allows me to walk more easily while I write. I have a treadmill desk, and I find it an enormous boost to my creativity and my productivity. Of course, I can type while I walk (it's not nearly as difficult as most people imagine), but it's easier to use only my voice. And if you don't have a treadmill desk, then — with voice activation, and a wireless headset — you will be able to stroll around your office while you're writing your next article or report.

And what are the downsides?

I see only two, and one of them is temporary.

1. The error rate is about 5%. The only difficulty is that many of these mistakes are really hard to see. This is because our brains have their own built-in autocorrect function: typically, when we see a mistake in something we've written ourselves, our brains read the words they expect to see rather than the words that are actually written. When using any voice activation software, it's important to proofread extra carefully. And here's a super-smart idea one of my readers recommended to me: Have your computer read your writing back to you. (Check your HELP files for how to set this up.) That way you'll be able to hear any errors.

2. If you've written on a computer for many years, expect it to take some time for you to become accustomed to dictating. When I first started dictating, I used to say that I "didn't know where to put my brain" when I was writing. It felt as though I had more brain than I had things to do. It was awkward and uncomfortable. It reminded me of the feeling I had 40 years ago when I switched from writing by hand to writing directly on a keyboard. In both cases it took me about three months to get used to the transition. (You also have to learn to speak your punctuation — e.g. say "comma" when you want a comma and "period" when you want to end a sentence — but I've never had any difficulty with that.)

The software program Word has built-in voice activation. I've never used it myself but most of the reports I've read suggest it's not terribly effective. The small investment in specialized software, like Dragon, and a good microphone has been worth every nickel. I can both write faster and do it more happily.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 25th, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
I have Parkinson's. Contrary to the normal tremor of my hands, my fingers freeze up. When this first happened three years ago, I thought there was something wrong with my keyboard. I was ready to buy a new keyboard when my physical therapist noticed that I was walking but not swinging my left arm.

"Sam, you need to see a neurologist."

In November 2018, I was diagnosed with early-on Parkinson's. Dragon has been a godsend for me. You are correct. It does take some learning. Like you, I typed between 90 and 120 words a minute. (I finished my first NaNoWriMo in 13 days. My wife fed me coffee intravenously!) The next year, I finished in 23 days. What slowed me down was remembering to say.! Even now, I have to go back and carefully edit my punctuations I can write a whole page without putting in a period. And some days, when my finger freezing and/or tremor is not evident, I enjoy going back to the keys with my fingers just for old times sake. I miss the rhythm of typing.
I look forward to your columns. Keep writing.
Sam Turner
Friday June 25th, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm so glad you've been able to switch to dictating, Sam. Parkinson's seems so unfair but it's great that technology has been able to help!

My big problem now is that I'm on a Mac and Dragon has discontinued supporting Mac users. I know there is dictation ability inherent to the Mac but it's not anywhere near as good as that offered by Dragon.

Sometimes, when I'm desperate for dictation, I'll dictate into my phone and then email myself the text. The iPhone voice activation software seems to be better than the one on the Mac desktop.
Friday June 25th, 10:21 AM
Comment by: Sam T. (Tucson, AZ)
Good idea using the iPhone to dictate. I use it for Notes. Have a successful week!
Sunday June 27th, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Stephen H.
Interesting, Daphne. I find MacBook Pro (2020) dictation to be much more accurate than my iOS devices. Whichever works best, dictation is the way to go. And Grammarly is good at finding errors.
Sunday June 27th, 10:22 PM
Comment by: Win E.
I dictate into my Google Keep notes app, using my phone. It automatically synchs to Keep in my browser. Then I copy and paste it into Word and clean it up. It works beautifully, and yes, it does indeed increase the pace of my writing.
Tuesday June 29th, 6:59 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the technical comments, everyone. I'm going to update my Mac laptop very soon (maybe even next weekend) so will ask questions about dictation when I do that.

And thanks for the idea of dictating to Google Keep, Win!

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